The Washington Post reports:
“President Trump’s former campaign chairman Paul Manafort went on trial Tuesday in federal court in Alexandria, Virginia, where prosecutors charged that his personal fortune was propped up by years of lies to tax authorities and banks.
“The first trial to arise out of the investigation run by special counsel Robert Mueller got off to a fast start Tuesday, as a six-man, six-woman jury was picked — and opening statements delivered —in less than a day ... “Manafort faces 18 charges of financial fraud, as prosecutors say he failed to pay taxes on some of the millions of dollars he made working as a strategist for a political party in Ukraine, and then lied to banks to get loans when those payments stopped. Though the case grew out of the special counsel probe, the trial will not delve into issues surrounding Russian interference in the 2016 election; it is about Manafort’s money.”
Wednesday morning, President Donald Trump freaked out in a series of tweets:
“... This is a terrible situation and Attorney General Jeff Sessions should stop this Rigged Witch Hunt right now, before it continues to stain our country any further. Bob Mueller is totally conflicted, and his 17 Angry Democrats that are doing his dirty work are a disgrace to USA!
“Paul Manafort worked for Ronald Reagan, Bob Dole and many other highly prominent and respected political leaders. He worked for me for a very short time. Why didn’t government tell me that he was under investigation. These old charges have nothing to do with Collusion —a Hoax!”
For all the talk from Trump defenders and even some in the mainstream media that the Manafort trial has nothing to do with Trump, Trump plainly feels differently. So why should he be so upset, again showing that his objective has been to shut down (i.e., obstruct) the ongoing Russia investigation?
There are a slew of reasons why the trial should trouble Trump, not the least of which is a possible conviction (carrying what amounts to a life sentence) against the president’s former campaign chairman. That’s not going to help Trump’s effort to paint the entire Russia investigation as a “hoax.” And this is not the only trial Manafort has to worry about. A separate case in Washington involving failure to register as a foreign agent and witness-tampering claims will come in September. Conviction in either of those cases will increase the incentive for Manafort to make a deal with Mueller.
The trial also connects to Trump in other ways. The Post report continues:
“Manafort collected more than $60 million between 2010 and 2014 from his Ukraine work, where President Viktor Yanukovych, an ally of the Kremlin, was Manafort’s ‘golden goose,’ [Assistant U.S. Attorney Uzo] Asonye said.
“When Yanukovych had to flee Ukraine for Russia in 2014, Manafort’s ‘cash spigot’ was shut off, the prosecutor said, and the political strategist set out to generate money by lying to banks on loan applications.”
And then Manafort went to work for Trump. For free! And led the campaign when the Republican National Committee platform was changed in Russia’s favor (dropping support for arming Ukraine, for example). And offered briefings for a Kremlin-connected Russian oligarch Oleg Deripaska. In essence, the trial is the prequel to the story of the Trump campaign’s multiple contacts with Russia.
“Manafort is a mirror image of Trump. He is a man seduced by the oligarch wealth of the former Soviet Union,” says Max Bergmann of the Moscow Project. “Putting profit over principles he ends up becoming entangled, entrapped, and then a witting tool of Russian interests. The trial is a preview for much of what’s to come.” He adds, “The trial is going to help us understand why the Trump campaign conspired with Russia. It is going to spell out Manafort’s motive. It will show that Manafort had deep ties to Russia (just like Trump) and was financially desperate prior to joining the Trump campaign.”
Frankly, confirming the presence on the campaign - at its highest level - of a guy as thick as thieves with the Russians will begin to chip away at Trump’s emphatic denial of any contacts or ties with Russia. Remember, in July 2016, Manafort was asked by ABC’s George Stephanopoulos, “Are there any ties between Mr. Trump, you or your campaign and Putin and his regime?” Manafort answered, “No, there are not. That’s absurd. And you know, there’s no basis to it.” Except that was patently false.
Trump also denied campaign contacts with Russians, as did Reince Priebus, the president’s one-time chief of staff. In February 2017, Priebus declared, “The New York Times put out an article with no direct sources that said that the Trump campaign had constant contacts with Russian spies, basically, you know, some treasonous type of accusations. We have now all kinds of people looking into this. I can assure you and I have been approved to say this - that the top levels of the intelligence community have assured me that that story is not only inaccurate, but it’s grossly overstated and it was wrong. And there’s nothing to it.” Except there were dozens and dozens of contacts, including by Manafort.
In short, establishing that Trump’s one-time campaign chief was heavily connected with Kremlin characters doesn’t prove conspiracy to acquire help during the election, but it sure does bolster the credibility of the investigators and underscores how preposterous were the dozens of denials that the campaign had any Russia contacts. A campaign chief down on his luck going to work for free for Trump certainly provides the back story for Manafort’s efforts to “monetize” those Russian connections.
As Bergmann suggests, “This trial will also highlight, but not answer, many outstanding questions, such as: How did Manafort end up on the campaign?; Why did someone so cash-strapped work for free?; and, What did he do to conspire with Russia during the campaign? Mueller’s answers to those question will come later.”
In other words, Paul Manafort’s trial will set the table for what follows.